A Blueprint for Obama

As expected, the new administration in Washington has leaped into action in the Middle East with a string of high level appointments and visits to the region by officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.

Quite rightly, the top American priority is Iran, where concerted diplomatic action is required to prevent the mullahs in Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to bring them into some kind of dialogue with the West. But moving ahead on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is no less urgent and, here too, President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team have a key role to play.

Most Israelis believe that ending Israel’s rule in the territories and ceasing to manage the lives of millions of Palestinians is an existential Israeli interest. In less than a decade the Palestinians will constitute the majority of the population between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. In other words, unless Israel divests itself of rule in Judea-Samaria as far as possible, not necessarily through an agreement, it will with its own hands put an end to the Jewish state and create a binational state in its stead.

The American government should not heed the attempts by the vocal hawkish minority of American Jews to prevent the Obama administration from rescuing Israel from such a fate, and it should also block moves by a right-wing Israeli coalition government to put a spoke in the wheel of the two-state solution.

The United States should unconditionally support Israel’s security demands, primarily because this will discourage pragmatic Arab players from backing Arab or Islamic militancy in clear breach of Western interests. However, it should also emphatically oppose any expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and all construction outside the major settlement blocks.

Washington could also strongly urge the Israeli government to legislate the evacuation-compensation law for West Bank settlers ready to leave of their own free will. At the same time, the
Palestinian Authority’s security control in the West Bank should be expanded and a Palestinian presence at select crossing points allowed.

But, unlike the Iranian case, America should not be in any hurry as Senator Mitchell tries to find enough common ground on core issues like borders, Jerusalem and refugees, as a basis for new American bridging proposals. It is essential to view peace-making as a gradual process,
in which the involvement of moderate Arab states increases gradually, rather than a “one go” move, in which prior Israeli and Palestinian implementation of all outstanding demands becomes a precondition for progress.

America should encourage its Arab allies to increase investments in support of the Palestinian business community and mobilize key Arab players and Muslim countries for Palestinian state-building efforts.

They could play a key role in developing infrastructure capacities and facilitating PA institution-building, effective governance, and economic growth. America and the moderate Arab states should also help the PA build a functioning professional security apparatus with the capacity and the will to fight terror and enforce law and order. On Gaza, the Americans, working closely with the Quartet on the Middle East, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, should take the lead in humanitarian relief and reconstruction and in mobilizing the requisite Arab and international support. They should also help create a stable surveillance and liaison structure for crisis prevention and resolution.

And it is important that the PA be involved in Gaza affairs, for example, through a presence on the Palestinian side of the Israel-Gaza crossing points. One could argue further that internal Palestinian reconciliation should be encouraged, as a step towards reunification of the West Bank and Gaza, in line with the principle of “one authority, one law, one gun.” But this is a question for the Mitchell mission to assess in due time.

On the Syrian track, progress on the Iranian front would make dealing with the Syrians simpler, reducing the likelihood of spoiler tactics by Damascus. In the meantime the United States might consider trying, in coordination with Israel, to marginalize Syrian opposition to the evolving U.S. strategic partnership with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the PA. It could try to gradually isolate Syria in the radical pro-Iranian camp by drumming up support for the Egyptian- and Saudi-led moderates among other Arab League states, especially by bringing Qatar and Kuwait squarely into the moderate camp. At the same time, Washington should develop a strategic dialogue with Turkey, enabling Damascus to find a way into the moderate camp via Ankara.

America might also consider giving Syria political and economic incentives for cooperation by renewing diplomatic relations with Damascus as an “advance payment”; making an effort to define or identify legitimate Syrian interests regarding Lebanon; showing express willingness to upgrade Syria’s international standing with the concomitant economic payoffs; strongly supporting Israeli-Syrian peace talks; and playing a leading role in the promotion of the Arab Peace Initiative as a basic framework for negotiations in an effort to reach a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace.

In all the above recommendations, one should bear in mind the importance of symbolic gestures and effective messages, of providing an alternative contingency plan to avoid deadlock in the event of failure, and, most importantly, of staying the course.

Attorney Gilead Sher was chief of staff and policy coordinator to former prime minister Ehud Barak and is author of ‘Within Reach: The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations 1999-2001.’

Published in The Pulse ,April 13, 2009